Bear Hunting and Honest Copy

I live and work in northern New Jersey, where I have my home and office in different towns. Last month, the state authorized a bear hunt to control the bear population, and it created an immediate furor.

Hunters defended the hunt, saying they were performing a needed service by reducing the bear population. Anecdotally at least, encounters between humans and bears appear to be more frequent of late. A golf course, for instance, was closed for half a day because a bear would not leave the greens. On the other side of the debate, protesters say bear hunting is cruel and unnecessary.

After reading an article on the hunt, I e-mailed a brief letter to the editor published Dec. 8 in the Daily News on page 60. It said: “The bear hunt may or may not be essential in controlling the New Jersey bear population. But the hunters should at least admit they aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing it because they like to shoot animals.”

Now, I am not saying hunting is wrong … though that happens to be my personal belief. But we can safely assume that most hunters enjoy the hunting experience. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it, right? Well, a big part of that experience is shooting and killing an animal.

So the logical, inescapable conclusion is that if you are a hunter, you enjoy shooting and killing animals. I know it. You know it. And anti-hunting activists know it.

So when hunters say, “I do it to control the population” or “It’s more humane to shoot the animal than to let it starve” or pretend to be maintaining the ecological balance of nature, we detect a note of bull crap … and react accordingly by viewing them as hypocrites.

Now here’s the point as it relates to direct marketing: Consumers today are extremely adept at detecting B.S. Conversely, people can sense when a person or organization is being honest and open with them, and respond positively to that.

When you lie to sell your product, not only is it unethical, immoral and most likely illegal, it is also ineffective. Consumers instinctively distrust you and therefore don’t buy from you. All of this suggests the following guidelines for “truth in advertising” and, in particular, honesty in direct marketing:

1. Tell your readers the accurate facts about your product.

2. If a fact or feature about your product is negative, you can omit it from your promotional materials, as long as your copy is legally compliant. You are not required to proactively point out product weaknesses or areas in which competitors are superior.

3. However, focusing on and pointing out one or two product drawbacks actually can work in your favor. It shows the prospect you are honest and makes you instantly more credible.

4. When writing about a product deficiency in your copy, immediately show either (a) why that defect is unimportant or (b) how you fixed the defect so that your product is now superior to others in that area.

5. Tell readers the benefits that they may reasonably expect can be delivered by your product. For instance, if your product weighs little, is small and has a handle, then it is reasonable to say it is portable and easy to carry.

6. Do not make a statement about your product you know to be false.

7. Do not make a claim about your product that you can’t prove.

8. Do not make up testimonials.

9. If you wouldn’t sell it to your mother, or say it to your grandmother, don’t sell it or say it to your prospect.

10. You have a lot of leeway in interpreting statistics to support your selling argument, as long as you document the source of those statistics and quote them accurately.

For example, one mail-order marketer boasted that his merchandise was so rare and special that “not one person in a thousand” had ever owned it. Isn’t that another way of saying no one buys the thing? Based on those numbers, calling it a “best seller” – a term thrown around too readily by copywriters – would have been false advertising. But making it seem special with the “not one person in a thousand” line was clever and honest.

Do these guidelines for “truth in direct marketing” make sense to you? Or are they, like shooting bears in New Jersey to help the ecology, a load of B.S.?

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